Rationale and consequences of reclassifying obesity as an addictive disorder: neurobiology, food environment and social policy perspectives

Physiol Behav. 2012 Aug 20;107(1):126-37. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.05.005. Epub 2012 May 11.


The rapid increase in the prevalence of obesity is a priority for investigators from across numerous disciplines, including biology, nutritional science, and public health and policy. In this paper, we systematically examine the premise that common dietary obesity is an addictive disorder, based on the criteria for addiction described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, version IV, and consider the consequences of such a reclassification of obesity for public policy. Specifically, we discuss evidence from both human and animal studies investigating the effects of various types and amounts of food and the food environment in obese individuals. Neurobiological studies have shown that the hedonic brain pathways activated by palatable food overlap considerably with those activated by drugs of abuse and suffer significant deficits after chronic exposure to high-energy diets. Furthermore, food as a stimulus can induce the sensitization, compulsion and relapse patterns observed in individuals who are addicted to illicit drugs. The current food environment encourages these addictive-like behaviors where increased exposure through advertisements, proximity and increased portion sizes are routine. Taking lessons from the tobacco experience, it is clear that reclassifying common dietary obesity as an addictive disorder would necessitate policy changes (e.g., regulatory efforts, economic strategies, and educational approaches). These policies could be instrumental in addressing the obesity epidemic, by encouraging the food industry and the political leadership to collaborate with the scientific and medical community in establishing new and more effective therapeutic approaches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Food / adverse effects*
  • Food / classification
  • Humans
  • Neurobiology*
  • Obesity / classification
  • Obesity / epidemiology*
  • Public Policy*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*